Stronger, Faster, Cheaper
The Pros of Prefab Restroom Structures
By Chris Gelbach
When park districts consider building a public restroom as part of a new or existing facility, they often weigh whether to go with a site-built structure or a prefabricated one. As they do, they are realizing that premanufactured structures are becoming a more attractive option for a growing array of applications. More and more companies are offering these products as traditional industry stalwarts continue to innovate. The result is more options for parks in terms of construction materials, building layouts and aesthetic options that can provide sturdy, safe, functional buildings for patrons at attractive price points.
One of the main considerations with attempting a site-built building is the complexity and cost of the task. This often will involve hiring an architect, an engineer and all of the building trades required to build the restroom onsite. This can make site-built buildings less cost-effective than prefab ones in areas with higher labor costs.
"Time is money when it comes to site labor," said Glenn Rachak, president of a custom manufacturer of prefabricated restrooms based in Fort Collins, Colo. "Anything you can do on site to save time saves money in the long run, even with the shipping rates going up the way they have the last five, six years."
The time to install also is typically much quicker with prefab than is possible with a site-built approach. While a plant-built concrete building still requires time for curing, it typically can be completed much more quickly. The installation itself can take several hours to several days, depending on the building type and complexity. "We can do a two-month turnaround start to finish, where it might take two months just to get the plans drawn up to start constructing the thing on site," Rachak said.
Preparing the Site
Prefabricated buildings still require some site preparation before the building arrives, including sewer and water lines to the site if it won't be a vault-style building, and preparation of the foundation according to manufacturer specifications. Many buildings arrive pre-plumbed and pre-wired. Some manufacturers also will perform the installation, while others will not.
Prefabricated park restrooms are available in a variety of materials, including wood frame, precast concrete and concrete masonry unit (CMU) structural designs. This gives park planners a variety of choices in finding a prefabricated solution to fit the architectural and vandal-resistance needs of the application.
The type of building material selected can affect where and how the building can be delivered. Rachak said his company has put its prefabricated buildings everywhere from sea level to 12,000 feet. "We've even helicoptered in units," he said. "Once you get into helicoptering in buildings, you get into a much larger expense. But you're not hauling a crew two miles into a worksite where they can't even drive, either."
While such extreme measures are rarely necessary, they also are not an option for heavier block CMU buildings. "We used to helicopter buildings in when we were building wood-frame buildings," said Chuck Kaufman, president of a manufacturer of public restrooms based in Minden, Nev. "But the maximum you can helicopter is 16,000 pounds. Once you start using masonry products, where an average building weighs 40,000 to 80,000 pounds, forget it."
According to Kaufman, the trucks that deliver CMU buildings are typically two to four inches above the ground, so curbs, unlevel ground and ravines can be impediments to site access. "Planning for ingress and egress to the site with huge trucks and trailers or cranes is often not considered," he said. "Trees, overhead utility lines and other obstacles must be planned for before the loads arrive."
If the restroom structure will be part of a larger project, Kaufman recommends that it be put in during the first phase of the project before surrounding infrastructure such as grass, grating and underground piping is installed. "We used to do work on golf courses, and then I quit it," he said. "They never put bathrooms on the course until it has been open for three or four years. And then you tear the you-know-what out of the course trying to get these buildings in."
Some manufacturers also offer precast concrete buildings that can be delivered piecemeal as another option. "If you're going to deliver it in pieces—four walls and a roof in its simplest form—you can deliver it if it's narrow access or remote and assemble it at the location," said Moffette Tharpe, managing director for a manufacturer of precast concrete buildings based in Midland, Va.
No matter the delivery method, it's important to discuss all of these considerations thoroughly with the manufacturer before moving ahead with the project. Good communication on site preparation also is required, including preparing the foundation and details on where the "stub out" pipes and electrical conduits will be located. "It's important so the precaster can locate the holes precisely in the floor," Tharpe said. "That's probably one of the most frequently made mistakes. Make sure there's good coordination between the site preparer and the manufacturer of the restroom."
Another consideration, according to Rachak, is having the proper water line size if it's a flush building. "You might go so far down the line in this project with whatever manufacturer and then realize you need a two-inch water line and you only have a one-inch and you might have to put in a pressure tank," Rachak said.
Because of all these different considerations, Gary Burger, national sales manager for a manufacturer of concrete buildings based in Hillsboro, Texas, recommends having the manufacturer come out and visit the site before installation. "Each manufacturer will have different abilities in terms of being able to give you a turnkey solution," he said. Since the number of companies in the field has exploded in recent years, Rachak advises also asking for references so you can get a sense of what they do and what the experience of their previous customers has been.
Controlling the Construction
One factor that can complicate traditional stick-built onsite construction is the unpredictability of weather and temperature. According to Kaufman, the makers of prefabricated buildings now are able to incorporate technologies in prefabricated structures that they never could if building on site.
"The in-plant controlled environment affects curing of some of these materials," Kaufman said. "We develop our non-absorbent concrete slabs to resist water for life. A variance in 10 degrees in temperature during curing can turn the slab surface to white powder that once started does not stop. Holding a 10-degree variance is impossible on site."
Concrete still requires time to cure in the plant, but the process can be hastened through the application of heat. And because the construction process is not subject to the elements, the buildings can be installed any time of year. This is attractive to parks that want to install a restroom in the winter to be ready for park patrons in the spring. "I literally install buildings in the middle of winter all over America if the foundations are put in in the fall," Kaufman said.
Likewise, the specialization that results from in-plant production may lead to more consistent construction because the same person working on restroom structure doors today in the plant will be working on them tomorrow. "Unless you have a signature park that demands a signature architectural design," Burger said, "you'll almost always get better results from a premanufactured building over a site-built one."
Building the structure in the plant reduces the amount of space required on site for construction purposes. It additionally lessens the liability concerns that come from having construction materials on site for an extended period that could serve as an attractive nuisance for children.
As more manufacturers of prefabricated structures continue to enter the market, and others continue to refine their products, they are offering a wider range of options suitable for a growing range of park applications.
Some companies offer designs with a limited number of standard architectural styles and floor plans that are cost-effective without allowing for customization. Others specialize in custom buildings that can be tailored to the specific environment. "If it's supposed to look like a California Mission, it looks like a California Mission," Kaufman said. "If it's supposed to look like it's in the middle of Egypt, it does. New England has horizontal clapboard. In the South, it's mostly brick. In Texas, it's Southwest architecture. We just blend in with the surrounding community architecture."
Such options include possibilities for dry or wet restrooms as well as different colors, textures, finishes and rooflines that can be done totally precast. Manufacturers are also seeing more requests for multi-room restroom structures that include such amenities as showers, storage areas, concession stands and shade structures.
According to Burger, many parks put off building restrooms because of cost considerations, even though restroom facilities are important to visitors and enhance their park experience considerably. "But when they finally do it, they end up getting too big of a building," he said. "They get a huge multi-user building, when they would have been fine getting a structure with a couple of family assist rooms."
To prevent this issue, Burger recommends that parks always keep in mind the fact that many premanufactured structures are designed so that they can be moved later. "If you start with a small one and then you add some ball parks or you have more visitors, you can pull it out and take it to another park later and put in another bigger restroom," Burger said. "We move some buildings like that every year."
Putting Safety First
Many manufacturers are seeing a growing trend toward clients favoring unisex, single-stall designs that include some family restrooms, with more spacious facilities and baby-changing stations in the family restrooms. Single-stall designs are becoming particularly prominent in higher-risk environments.
"With a single-stall design, a woman can open the door. Look inside. See that nobody's in there. Go in there and close the door behind her and lock it. In really tough environments, the single-user design is now prevalent. Never multiple occupancy—never," Kaufman said.
Durable natural ventilation also is a safety priority. "You don't want people to be able to kneel down and look into the restroom nor do you want them to be able to kick the vent out. So, it needs to be very rugged," Tharpe said.
The natural ventilation enhances air quality in the structure while providing added safety for the user. "On the outside, you can hear what's going on on the inside," Kaufman said. "That's not true of regular site-built buildings. They're like bunkers."
When Tharpe sees parks opt for more traditional multi-user layouts, he said more clients include a chase between the male and female sides with translucent panels installed near the ceiling so that there are no reachable fixtures to be damaged or bulbs to be broken. "In plumbed and wired restrooms, we are also seeing the conduit more often being built into the thickness of the wall itself as opposed to surface mounted," Tharpe said.
Another safety feature growing in popularity is the use of magnetic door-lock systems that can open and close the restroom structures at designated times. This also alleviates the need for staff to be there to open and close the buildings. Motion-activated lights also are an inexpensive yet helpful option for many facilities.
According to Kaufman, external security cameras still are a safety option that is much discussed but seldom implemented. He estimates that his company installs continuous-monitor outside cameras at one at of 100 buildings for park clients.
While not all manufacturers opt for the same materials, they all provide features and construction designed with an eye to maximizing vandal resistance. "We're building the inevitable brick you-know-what house," Kaufman said. "They're pretty stout. You can't damage them. They don't burn. All you can do is graffiti them."
Some companies still offer anti-graffiti coatings, but their effectiveness is a matter of some dispute. "Anti-graffiti used to be huge," Kaufman said. "It is absolutely dead. In the past, everybody had a new graffiti product. None of them worked. And none of them work today." Instead, many park facilities opt to just limit the potential for graffiti to the front of the building by landscaping the other three sides, and painting over graffiti on the front of the building when it occurs.
Prison-grade stainless steel toilets and sinks are an option for those who prefer maximal vandal-resistance, but some clients still opt for vitreous china because of its lower costs. "Some clients won't do anything but stainless," said Burger. "I've got others who have serious, serious vandalism and they won't do anything but vitreous. They have people who can go change these out quickly and the vitreous is considerably cheaper. Their feeling is if they can break the vitreous, they can probably damage the stainless. I've stopped trying upselling or downselling on either one of them."
Likewise, vandal-resistant light fixtures, windows, doors and handles can help parks limit the amount of time they'll have to spend maintaining the building. Burger also has moved away from using paper towels for the same reason. "In public restrooms, the garbage is always full unless somebody is there dumping that garbage once a day."
Toilet partitions are another feature that tends to require significant maintenance costs. "The traditional toilet-stall partitions you have in office buildings don't come into parks anymore," said Kaufman. "They don't hold up." Instead, his company has moved to concrete block partitions. "It's just like a wall. You can't destroy it."
Rachak is seeing more solar installations today, particularly on vault buildings. In situations where electricity would need to be run hundreds of feet, these can result in significant savings for use running LED lights and a fan system. "Whereas a little standalone solar system might be $2,500, you might spend $15,000 or more getting the electricity over there," he said.
According to Rachak, solar systems continue to get more efficient. "You're getting more watts per square foot so the panels are smaller, less expensive, they're putting out more power and the batteries are better." But the batteries do still come with maintenance considerations, requiring replacement every three to five years.
Unfortunately, according to Burger, solar panels bring vandalism concerns of their own, as people can steal or damage the panels. For this reason, they offer the best potential payback in sunnier climates and in more secure environments.
Manufacturers also are offering a growing variety of other options, including antimicrobial interior features, easy-clean floors with rounded corners, post-consumer recycled materials, electronic sink and flush valves, waterless urinals, no-touch plumbing fixtures and non-corrosive building materials designed for salt-air environments. The availability of these features varies by manufacturer.
What is consistent across the industry is that parks have the ability to do more using prefabricated restroom structures than ever before. They may not be the best fit for every park environment, but are notable for their sturdiness, flexibility and improving aesthetics. For these reasons, they're an increasingly attractive option that can provide relief not only to park patrons, but also to park managers looking for a quick-to-install and cost-effective solution.
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